New commissioner seeks accountability

By Kathy Helms-Hughes

   Carter County voters expressed their displeasure with the status quo at the polls in August 2002, voting in candidates who had campaigned on the platform of more accountability in local government.
   It is hoped by any community that those elected do not simply spout empty campaign rhetoric, but will indeed carry through on their promises.
   As part of the move toward more accountability, the Rules and Bylaws Committee of the County Commission is taking a look at the various committees and boards which make up local government to ensure operation guidelines are in place.
   Al Meehan, chairman of the Rules Committee, is one of the new commissioners who wants to see change. "When I first came in, in August, I saw this long list of committees and boards and I asked how people got on there? Is there some write-up as far as job descriptions, appointment procedures, and so forth?"
   What he found in his research is that the answer is not always clear. Hence, "We're trying to document what the positions are, what law it's based on, then cite the TCA (Tennessee Code Annotated) or the law, whether it's a private act or a public act; the authority of that committee, commission or board; what the composition is, how it's appointed; a summary of their duties; and if they're compensated, how they're compensated."
   Case in point: the Industrial Bond Board.
   Several months ago commissioners were faced with voting three members to the bond board. Meehan's research showed that commissioners had been serving longer terms than the bond board charter specified. His committee set to work and, he said, "We now have it in the rules, beginning at the next round, it's going to move back to three years."
   Around the same time frame, the committee began looking at the planning commission. "The only thing I was given on the planning commission was a private act of 1972 which said that there would be someone on the planning commission from every school district," he said. The Rules Committee then began looking at who lived where among county planners and found that one district is not represented on the planning commission.
   "Here's a commission that deals with zoning and makes important decisions that impact the whole county. I said the county needs to be equally represented and that people are being disenfranchised if we're not doing it that way."
   At last Monday's County Commission meeting, Meehan presented a motion to adopt new rules regulating the planning commission as outlined in Public Act TCA 13-3-101. He said the county was sent a letter in January from Stan Harrison who heads up the Regional Planning Commission in Johnson City, which regulates local planners.
   "The opinion from Stan Harrison stated that our commission, as configured, is legitimate, but he did intimate that we're going to have to fall into the public act at the next go-round in April 2004," Meehan said. "Everybody in regional planning all the way up to Nashville said we need to get rid of this private act."
   The motion passed 11-10, after a motion to table was defeated. But according to County Attorney George Dugger, the question is: "Is it legal?"
   Under the public act, members of the planning commission are appointed by the county executive and confirmed by the county commission. The public act doesn't specify where the planning commissioners are to come from or how many members there should be. The commission can be made up of five to 15 members, according to Dugger.
   The motion presented by Meehan recommended that there be one member appointed from each county election district for a total of eight. If structured as it is now, seven other members would be appointed at-large.
   "It isn't law that there be one member from each county election district, but the commission has the power to set it up that way," Dugger said. "It doesn't tell [County Executive Dale Fair] who he has to appoint, except that he's restricted to at least get one from each county election district ... and then, so many members at-large. That gives him a lot of latitude."
   Under the public act, while members of the new planning commission may include county commissioners or commissioners from municipalities such as Elizabethton, they cannot be a majority. The new law also states that members of the planning commission appointed from a county or municipal legislative body would serve "coterminus," meaning that if they are voted off those legislative bodies, their terms with the planning commission also would end.
   Terms generally are four years, however, new members will serve staggered terms so that not everyone is rotated off at the same time, as will be the case in 2004.
   "I acknowledge that this is a document in process and it's going to be developed. If there are flaws here, we've got to correct them. But I'm not going to give up digging in and finding who's going to be accountable to who and what," Meehan said.
   Also at issue is compensation. According to the motion adopted, planning commission members, other than salaried officials serving on the commission, will receive compensation plus travel expenses for each commission meeting attended, but they must be there a specified amount of time.
   Meehan's concern was that full accountability was not being achieved because some commissioners were not able to attend the entire meeting. Under the new rules, "You'd at least be there for an hour, or if the meeting is less than an hour, you'd be there for the whole meeting and get your pay," he said.
   County Attorney Dugger said he has asked for an opinion from the state planning commission and the University of Tennessee County Technical Assistance Service (CTAS) as to the legality of the proposal.
   "Under that statute as set up by Mr. Meehan, planning commissioners are appointed by the county executive with confirmation by the county commission. There's some question about whether they have to confirm it or not. The attorney general's opinion says you don't have to confirm them," however, some commissions do, he said. "The question is which one we fall under."
   Dugger said the commission passed Meehan's proposal over his objections. He said he believes the fact that the proposal designates the appointment of a member from each legislative district "usurps the authority of the county executive."
   The county executive could follow that dictate, he said, but "that's not what the statute says. The statute says that the county executive appoints the commission." He might not want to appoint members from each district, Dugger said. County Executive Fair was out of town and unavailable for comment.
   "We've got conscientious people on that planning commission and they try to do a good job. They're very efficient, they're very sincere and they're very dedicated," Dugger said.